An ego can prevent a talented manager from becoming a great leader.
In fact, that's why the best managers actually avoid using the word "I," as well as other self-referential pronouns like “me, mine and myself."
That's according to Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter, organizational experts who have trained leaders at notable companies like Google, Nike, Accenture and General Electric.
In their book “The Mind of the Leader,” the co-authors write that the most effective leaders use significantly more first person plural pronouns, such as “we,” and second-person pronouns like “you” and “your," than ineffective leaders do.
Successful managers are also better able to demonstrate “others orientation,” which means that they show concern for the well-being of those around them. Ineffective leaders, on the other hand, are self-oriented and are more concerned with their own well-being when they address others.
Research shows just how powerful pronouns can be when trying to rally people behind your cause. One study analyzed the use of pronouns in all 43 Australian elections since gaining independence from Britain in 1901.
Candidates who used “we, you and us” were far more likely to win elections — and by a larger margin at that. The study also found that victors used more collective pronouns than their opponents in 80 percent of all elections and made 61 percent more references to “we” and “us.” Election winners also used collective pronouns once every 79 words, whereas their unsuccessful opponents only used those terms once every 136 words.
The results suggest that top leaders are better able to engage and connect with people they address when they use more inclusive terminology and are selfless leaders, write the authors.
When you use self-promoting pronouns like “I” and “me,” you’re leading with your ego, note Hougaard and Cater. They write that there are four major downsides to ego-driven leadership:
- It makes you vulnerable to criticism and pushes you to behave badly in the face of setbacks. Your ego also prevents you from learning from mistakes. This makes it difficult to appreciate the critical lessons one can glean from failure.
- It can make you susceptible to manipulation from others. An inflated ego also makes you predictable, which people can take advantage of by driving your behavior in obvious ways. The authors add that when you’re a victim of your own need to be seen as great, you end up making decisions that are bad for both you and your organization.
- It narrows your field of vision and makes it hard to both see and accept new opportunities. This can make you fall victim to the limitations of your own success and can lead to stagnation and a lack of growth within your organization, the authors explain.
- It drives your desire for status, wealth and power. “Almost unwittingly, we end up doing things that are not aligned with our values,” write the authors. This makes you lose touch with your true self, act in ways that are self-serving and cause harm to others against your better judgement.
The authors do admit that it isn’t always easy to practice selfless leadership. Humans are “deeply programmed to look out for ourselves and see things from our own perspective,” they write.
But you can train yourself to be less ego-focused by paying close attention to how you address others in the workplace. Whenever you use, or are close to using, a self-referential term like “me” or “my,” advise the authors, pause and consider whether using a more inclusive term would be beneficial.
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